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Every murder involves a vast web of people, from the witnesses and the detectives who first come to the scene, to the lawyers and the juries who examine the facts, to the families of the victims, who must make sense of the aftermath.
The more traumatic the killing, the more intricate the web. In the summer of 1982 the city of Waco was confronted with the most vicious crime it had ever seen: three teenagers were savagely stabbed to death, for no apparent reason, at a park by a lake on the edge of town.
Justice was eventually served when four men were found guilty of the crime, and two were sent to death row. In 1991, though, when one of the convicts got a new trial and was then found not guilty, some people wondered, Were these four actually the killers?
Several years after that, one of the men was put to death, and the stakes were raised: Had Texas executed an innocent man? This story examines the case through the viewpoint of five people: a patrol sergeant who investigated the crime; a police detective who became skeptical of the investigation; an appellate lawyer who tried to stop the execution; a journalist whose reporting has raised new doubts about the case; and a convict who pleaded guilty but now vehemently proclaims his innocence. A word about the reporting.
This article is the result of a full year of research—dozens of interviews were conducted with the principal and minor players, and thousands of pages of transcripts, depositions, and affidavits, from the case’s six capital murder trials and one aggravated sexual abuse trial, were carefully reviewed. Still, what follows is not a legal document; some of the people involved in the case are dead, others don’t remember much, and even others—including the patrol sergeant who investigated the case and the DA who prosecuted it—refused to be interviewed.
What follows is a story, built around the question that has haunted so many people for so many years: What really happened at the lake that night?
COLUMBIA, Mo. — Michael Sam was the loud country boy who wore a tank top and a cowboy hat. He was the smooth-singing baritone who could irritate his coaches and crack up his teammates with his improvised songs. He was one of the best players to come out of tiny Hitchcock, Tex., where his family was well known for all the wrong reasons.
He was an all-American and defensive terror on the football field. He was a regular at the gay club, where the bartenders knew him by name. Sam introduced himself to the world Sunday night as a National Football League prospect who happens to be gay.
Now he is poised to become a trailblazer in a violent and macho world that will scrutinize his every action and turn his private life into a very public debate.
But Sam has never had it easy. He grew up about 40 miles southeast of Houston near Galveston Bay in Texas, the seventh of eight children. Three of his siblings have died and two brothers are in prison. He lived briefly in the back seat of his mother’s car, and his relationship with his family remains complicated: When he visits home, he usually stays with friends.
Craig Soignet, the father of the girl who roiled a small town in Texas when she refused to cheer for the boy she told police had raped her. The girl was kicked off the cheer squad.